By David Von Drehle
January 25, 2022 at 4:50 p.m. EST
Everyone with open eyes can now see that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church never underestimated the problem of priests as sexual predators. They weren’t taken by surprise. Church leaders have known for decades exactly how vast the issue was, how all-consuming, from the humble parish all the way to the top in Rome.
They knew, because they tried to cover it up.
A church-authorized investigation in Germany has produced a multivolume report on sexual abuse in the archdiocese of Munich. In it, we see the archbishop himself at meetings more than 40 years ago, weighing the future of a criminally abusive priest — without a thought, it appears, of turning the man in to the police.
It is a sadly familiar story: secret conclaves of men in collars, flouting the laws of one nation after another to shuffle the abusers and launder their crimes. Only in this case, the archbishop of Munich was Joseph Ratzinger, who now goes by the title Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. After the report was published, the elderly retired pontiff was forced to admit that his testimony was false when he told investigators he had not attended one especially egregious coverup meeting.
An honest mistake, of course, his spokesman added.
But there was so much deceit in so many places over so many years that only the willfully naive can still believe in honest mistakes. The wall of silence has burst in jurisdictions around the world. The church’s talent for bureaucracy is turned against it as reams of incriminating records are dragged to light. They all tell essentially the same story in multiple languages.
The church knew about the abuse of children — as it was happening. Church leaders knew which priests were guilty and knew that abusers were a threat to abuse again. Covering up these crimes was no impediment to advancing in the hierarchy. Compromised bishops became archbishops. Compromised archbishops were crowned as cardinals. And Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope.
Defenders of the indefensible argue that Ratzinger was tougher on abusive priests than his predecessors, both in his service as head of the Curia department responsible for discipline in Rome and as pope from 2005 to 2013. But this misses important context. Ratzinger’s long reign over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the Catholic morals police — coincided with the gradual unraveling of church secrecy. He had no choice to take more action than the passive prelates who came before. The walls were caving in.
The report from Munich, published Jan. 20, found that Ratzinger was aware of at least four cases involving priestly abuse and reported none of them to the proper authorities. In one case, he assisted the relocation of a priest who had been convicted of molesting multiple boys; the man resumed work in proximity to children. When this scandal emerged in 2010, Ratzinger had become Benedict. The former vicar general for the Munich archdiocese told investigators that he was pressured “to assume the sole responsibility” for the matter to protect the pope.
Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, has his own part in the worldwide scandal. A Post investigation published in 2019 found that, as pope, Francis had ignored complaints by former students at church-run schools for the deaf that they were subjected to years of sexual abuse by multiple clerics and lay leaders.
Clearly, the question is no longer “who knew?” Everyone knew. Investigators in France estimated some 200,000 abuse cases were swept under various rugs. A Dublin commission found the church policy regarding abuse amounted to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” A former Vatican secretary of state shielded one of the church’s most notorious abusers. A former bishop of Kansas City was convicted of failure to report a priest’s stash ofchild pornography. Bishops in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and — most famously — Boston were all shown to have hushed up cases.
And this is only a wisp of all that has become public, with investigations in progress around the globe. It appears the reason Pope Francis has resisted calls for more accountability among bishops and archbishops is that too few leaders would survive transparency.
Catholic schools provide some of the world’s best education. Catholic hospitals care for the sick. Catholic charities feed and clothe the hungry and cold. All these good works are done, increasingly, by lay leaders — not by priests. (Though there are certainly some very good men in the priesthood.)
Enlightened lay Catholics increasingly understand that looking to a priest, or a bishop, or even a pope for guidance and moral example has been a dangerous mistake. Generations of those men have brought the church to its greatest crisis in some 500 years — and they cannot solve the problem of credibility and accountability for one simple reason.
They are the problem.